Object No.: L-21
Description: Black-and-white panoramic photograph of a huge crowd and small band standing outside the Hebrew Home for the Aged. The Neo-Moorish building was the Hebrew Home for the Aged from 1925 to 1969. Text on the photograph reads: "Dedication Ceremonies at the Hebrew Home for the Aged - Nov. 29, 1925.” The property and the house in the middle-right background behind the row of cars belonged to John Yeabower (1827-1919), a mounted guard for President Abraham Lincoln. Photograph by Fenschert and Flack studio.
Building the Home
The Hebrew Home for the Aged, founded in 1910, opened its first facility in 1914. Its mission was “to provide a home where food, clothing and shelter shall be furnished free of charge to indigent aged persons of the Hebrew faith.” Most were homeless, elderly Jewish immigrants who spoke little or no English. The Hebrew Home’s first location, a townhouse at 415 M Street, NW, accommodated 10 people when it opened in 1914. A caretaker was the only fulltime staff on site. Within a few years, a long waiting list illustrated the need for a larger site with medical facilities.
In 1922, the Hebrew Home’s board of directors announced plans to build a new, state of the art facility on Spring Road, NW. “Aunt Minnie” Goldsmith (1871-1971), Chair of the Building Fund Committee, opened a drive that, within a few weeks, raised the money necessary to start construction. The building’s future site on the former Yeabower estate was in the center of a growing Jewish community in Columbia Heights and Petworth.
The new structure was meant to be a premier facility of its kind in the United States. It illustrated the ability of Washington’s Jewish community to look after some of its most vulnerable residents. Designed by local architect Harry A. Brandt, the building was described as “pure American style.” Its exterior combined maroon brick with buff limestone trim. In February 1924, a less ambitious set of plans by architect Appleton P. Clark, Jr. replaced Brandt’s initial design. Other examples of Clark’s work include the Washington Post Building, the Owl's Nest, and houses throughout D.C.
Building commenced later that year with the laying of a corner stone for the first wing of the complex. Construction lasted for over year and was completed in late 1925.
Shortly after construction began, the Building Committee started planning the building’s dedication. For weeks leading up to the event, The Washington Post covered preparations, as well as last-minute fundraising. A month before the dedication, the Building Committee held a Halloween party in the facility during the final stages of construction to raise money for furniture and supplies.
The dedication ceremonies for the Hebrew Home for the Aged’s new facility on Spring Road were held on November 29, 1925. The festivities attracted leaders from Jewish organizations, and local and national government. A 60-member chorus comprised of members from different synagogues sang patriotic and Hebrew folk songs. Members of an American Legion post raised the colors, and Maryland Congressional Representative Fred N. Zihlman, chairman of the House District Committee, closed the dedication ceremonies. Following the dedication, the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Hebrew Home held a two-day housewarming in the building.
The new building included sun porches and balconies, sitting rooms and a social hall, and recreation rooms. Decorations identified the Jewish character of the building: six-pointed “Jewish” star motifs ringed the building between the second and third floors, similar star windows were prominent on the penthouse level, and Hebrew was visible on the building’s cornerstone.
As Washington’s Jewish community grew in the 1930s and 1940s, so too did the number of elderly Jews who needed assistance from the Hebrew Home. By 1950, the facility had become overcrowded, with some residents sleeping in hallways and enclosed porches. Additionally, many residents required more sophisticated nursing and hospital facilities. In 1953, an addition significantly increased capacity and added a nursing home section, medical facilities, a chapel and synagogue, and additional recreational areas. Designed by architect William St. Cyr Barrington, the addition emulated the earlier building’s materials and style.
In spite of the added space and services, the addition was unable to meet the needs the community’s needs. A new facility was built outside of D.C., in Rockville, MD, adjacent to the newly-constructed Jewish Community Center and Jewish Social Service Agency buildings. That building opened in 1969, renamed the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington. The DC National Guard and American Red Cross were among the teams that helped move residents to the new facility.
The Spring Road property was sold to the District of Columbia, which converted the property into a community health center. After years of deferred maintenance, the building became dilapidated and closed in 2009.
A New Phase
Since 2009, neighborhood residents and city officials debated plans for the building, including a homeless shelter, senior housing, and condos. In 2014, the site was added to the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites and the National Register of Historic Places. At the same time, D.C.’s government finalized plans to redevelop the site, preserving the existing structure, while constructing an addition. Once completed, the building will be a mix of market-rate and affordable housing.
In February 2015, JHSGW staff toured the current, derelict building to identify artifacts from its time as a Hebrew Home for the Aged. While renovations in the 1970s and later erased most of the building’s original details, we did note some vestiges from the past.
This Object of the Month is dedicated to the memory of Laurie England.
A great-granddaughter of “Aunt Minnie” Goldsmith, Laurie had a keen interest in local Jewish history and was a generous supporter of our Object of the Month series.
We are grateful for the assistance from Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kent Boese, and Michelle J. Chin and Stephen Campbell of the D.C. Department of General Services in facilitating our tour of the former Hebrew Home building on Spring Street, NW.